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Rangers break out in third period to top Sabres at MSG

The Rangers celebrate a second-period goal by Kaapo

The Rangers celebrate a second-period goal by Kaapo Kakko (24) against Buffalo Sabres goalie Dustin Tokarski during an NHL hockey game Monday, March 22, 2021. Credit: AP/Bruce Bennett

Sometimes, there can be more pressure on a team in facing a downtrodden opponent like the Buffalo Sabres than there is in going up against the top teams in the league.

The Sabres came into Madison Square Garden Monday a team in utter disarray: Their best player, Jack Eichel, is out indefinitely with an upper body injury; their No. 1 goalie, Linus Ullmark, has been out since late February with a lower body injury, and their coach, Ralph Krueger, was fired after the Sabres just couldn’t stop losing.

The Rangers, playing their fourth game without head coach David Quinn, who remains out per the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, simply could not afford to drop points to a team like Buffalo, which entered the Garden having gone 0-11-2 in its last 13 games.

"We call these ‘trap games,’ where you get up so much playing Philadelphia – you’ve got to pass them to get in the playoffs – you’ve got to play in the hottest team in the NHL in the Capitals, and now you play Buffalo,’’ Rangers acting coach Kris Knoblauch said.

Chris Kreider’s second power play goal of the game, and Kaapo Kakko’s second goal of the game, into an empty net, did the job for the Rangers, who broke out of a third-period tie to take care of business and beat the Sabres, 5-3.

The Rangers had entered the third period with a 3-1 lead, but goals early in the period, by rookie Dylan Cozens and Jeff Skinner, had tied it for the Sabres. Then, Buffalo’s Casey Mittelstadt got sent off for a high sticking penalty at 4:57, and the Rangers made the Sabres pay when Ryan Strome took a shot that was stopped by Buffalo relief netminder Dustin Tokarski, and Kreider swept in the rebound at 5:47, for his team-leading 16th goal of the season.

"Our power play, all year, we've had zone time, and we've created chances,’’ said Adam Fox, who had a goal and two assists in the game, including assists on both power play goals. "But you want to capitalize and be a difference in the game. And obviously, today we were a difference, and we were able to get some big goals.’’

Buffalo, which last won on Feb. 23 against the Devils, lost starting goaltender Carter Hutton 2:53 into the game, after he was crashed into by Julien Gauthier. But the Sabres opened the scoring at 3:52 of the second period, when Rasmus Asplund jammed one in at the near post against Keith Kinkaid for his second goal of the season.

But Kakko, who had gone 19 games without a goal, scored at 7:13 of the second, to tie it. It was his first goal since Jan. 22 in Game 4 of the season.

Kakko, 20, had started the game on the Kid Line, with 19-year-old Alexis Lafreniere and 21-year-old Filip Chytil. But acting coach Kris Knoblauch decided to move him up to the second line, with Artemi Panarin (three assists) and Strome (two assists). The move, Knoblauch said, had been planned in advance, the thinking being that Kakko was ready for second-line duty, and Colin Blackwell, who started at right wing on the Strome-Panarin line, would be getting extra ice time killing penalties, with Brett Howden unavailable because he was placed on the COVID-19 list.

Off an offensive zone faceoff, Panarin took the puck, went around behind the net, came out the other side and centered for Kakko, all alone in the slot. Kakko’s first attempt was stopped by Tokarski’s left pad, but the young Finn whacked at the puck a second time and popped it up over Tokarski and in for his third goal of the season.

Kreider’s first goal, on a five-on-three power play at 10:39, made it 2-1, and Fox, playing in his 100th NHL game for the Rangers, jammed in the rebound of a shot by Mika Zibanejad shot to make it 3-1 at 18:18 of the second.

New York Sports